Warfare History Network
SS units were transformed during the Polish campaign into a fighting force responsible for horrific atrocities.
At the mention of the letters “SS,” an image springs to mind of ruthless German troops, the epitome of the Nazi/Aryan ideal: tall, strong, blond-haired, and blue-eyed, enthusiastically ready to fight and die for Germany and their beloved Führer, Adolf Hitler.
The typical SS man has also been portrayed as a hardened criminal, someone without moral scruples—someone happy to murder defenseless civilians simply because he was told that it was his patriotic duty to wipe out whole populations due to their ethnicity or religion that were deemed a threat to Germany and the “Aryan race.”
This image has been created by hundreds of books, films, and television documentaries, but what is truth and what is fiction? And how did a small unit originally created to serve as Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard become a much feared combat force? Perhaps these questions can be answered by briefly examining how the SS came into existence and looking at the men most responsible for its creation and deployment in combat.
As one of Hitler’s most faithful sycophants, Heinrich Himmler was rewarded for his loyalty when his Führer gave him the command of the SS (Schutzstaffel, or Protection Detail) in 1929—Hitler’s personal bodyguard. Almost immediately, the meek looking former chicken farmer began turning the small unit into an instrument of terror and military power.
The bespectacled Bavarian was born into a Catholic family in Munich on October 7, 1900. As he matured, Himmler became attracted to nationalist causes and racial theories that posited that Germans and other Nordic or Aryan types were the “master race” and destined to rule the world. In 1923, he joined the tiny Nazi Party and began rising in its inner circle. On January 6, 1929, Hitler appointed Himmler Reichsführer-SS, or National Leader, of the 280-man SS detachment.